Absent Minded Adjectives

Worth Living Ambassador Katie Campeau

Hi, my name is Katie, I’m 20 years old and am in my 3rd year of Sociology at Acadia University. I love writing and reading, and I’m very enthusiastic about learning. I also happen to be dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression. I know, just your stereotypical student.

I cannot stress enough how often I hear the words “That really bugs my OCD,” or “Sorry, I’m so OCD about that!” This is only the tip of the iceberg. Whenever I’m online, I see quizzes that are entitled “How OCD Are You?” and its always followed with images of objects that are not symmetrically pleasing to the eye. Then there are characters that are played over and over again who are always the same tropes. They enjoy organization a little too more than a normal person would and they also happen to like cleanliness. They are the personification of OCD.

This is not the only one disorder that is oversimplified and not properly represented. Eating disorders are always portrayed through women who are dangerously thin and therefore shunning anyone else who does not meet these body and gendered standards. Bipolar disorder is presented as someone who simply flips a switch between “overly happy” and “incredibly sad” with no other state of emotion. Schizophrenia is the person muttering to themselves in public or ranting about government conspiracies. All of these disorders and many more are presented as these unacceptable character traits that we use in our vocabulary as adjectives. And, quite frankly, I believe that it needs to stop because of how harmful its implications and side effects are.

As someone with OCD, I don’t fit the mold of what society has decided “is” OCD. I’m not at all organized, so if you were to go into my bedroom, you would see that my floor is covered in clothes, and I couldn’t tell you when I last washed my sheets. I also do not compulsively clean my surroundings for hours or take eight showers a day. This is not to say that some people with OCD don’t have these experiences—and that they’re not perfectly valid and real—but it means that my experiences are not typically represented in the mainstream media. My OCD is heavily related to intrusive thoughts about my loved ones dying and many other horrific thoughts. Because of these thoughts, my compulsions normally involve a lot of counting, repetitive actions, fixating on symmetry, and much more. Also, when I say symmetry, I mean to say that when I line up my books into two stacks, the stack on the left has to be higher than the one on the right. This is symmetrical to me, and this form of symmetry alleviates the anxiety caused by my intrusive thoughts. Weird, right? This isn’t the stuff that’s shown in mainstream media and that’s mostly because people only like things that they can understand.

So, going back to media, anything that you have learned about OCD is through what you’ve seen online, in books, or in movies. Many people don’t actually reach out to reliable sources in order to gain a better understanding of OCD. Because of that, when I say “OCD,” your mind immediately goes to buzzwords like “clean,” “organization,” “symmetry,” and “perfection.” This is the same with other disorders. When I say eating disorder, you hear “thin.” When I say bipolar disorder, you hear “super happy,” “super sad,” and “overly emotional.” And when I say schizophrenia, you hear “voices,” “delusional,” and “crazy.” These complex and intricate disorders have been reduced to broad traits. Whenever someone enacts one of these traits, that’s when we shout out “You’re so OCD! Anorexic! Bipolar! Schizophrenic!”

This process is incredibly harmful for many reasons. One is shown through someone downplaying their own struggles and putting off getting proper treatment. If everyone is experiencing these disorders in the media, if everyone “is so OCD,” then maybe you don’t really have the disorder, or if you do, maybe it’s not actually that bad and you’re overreacting. This was one of the reasons I put off getting treatment. I also didn’t match the media’s definition of OCD, so when I was having these intrusive thoughts, I thought that I was something else entirely. I was afraid that as soon as I talked to a psychologist, that they would admit me to a psychiatric hospital and throw away the key. But then, entering therapy, my psychologist showed me a book of intrusive thoughts that people with OCD have had and recorded. I learned that I was actually quite normal. But how was I going to come to this conclusion on my own when the media told me that I wasn’t actually OCD?

Even after getting my diagnosis, after learning about the complexities of OCD, I felt a pang whenever someone said “I’m so OCD!” It’s not because of the initial reason over not seeking treatment, but it was because of this trivialization. Whenever someone makes these comments, I feel as though they are devaluing all the negative experiences I was forced to endure. That I still endure. Experiences that I will have to endure for the rest of my life.

Now, I’m not saying that the people who make these comments are trying to personally attack me or anyone else. I don’t believe that these people are using disorders as adjectives on purpose. Not at all. As a society, we’ve been exposed to these inaccurate representations of mental disorders since the beginning of time. We’re taught how to view and understand mental disorders in an unconscious manner. I’m well aware that when someone uses OCD as an adjective, that they were conditioned into thinking that that is a proper use of the word and meaning. It’s similar to how people accidentally make sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs. We’ve been pre-wired to fall into this trap, and I’m not going to sit here and say that I’ve never fallen victim to it.

We all do it, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is ignoring the harms that come with using mental disorders as adjectives and to deny the fact that its harmful to the mental health community. I believe that there are three things that we can do to stop this negative process. First, when you use a mental disorder as an adjective, stop and recognize what you did. If you say “That’s so OCD,” take note that you described an action as OCD. Second, recognize that what you said is wrong. If you claimed that organizing your books alphabetically, or excessively washing your hands is OCD, then recognize that defining them as so is both wrong definitively and morally. The last point, which is a more long-term solution, is to research mental disorders. They are all so different and diverse, which is why the media only shows an oversimplified glimpse of this realm. If you put the effort into understanding someone’s disorder, then you’ll quickly learn that it is not okay to use it as an adjective.

Finally, I want to end this post by addressing the individuals out there who feel attacked by absent minded adjectives. I know that you’re frustrated by your disorder being trivialized. It’s so hard and so unnecessary. Your struggles are very real and valid. I know that you just want to shake the people out there who misuse your disorder to express something so simple, but you have to be patient with them. Instead of losing your cool—oh, trust me, I have lost my cool MANY times—you have to be calm. If someone doesn’t have the knowledge that you have about your own disorder, then help them understand it by explaining it to them. You can also be a part of the solution to ending this process.

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